Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in Australia today, talking about the development of the world's biggest lithium-ion battery. 

Ben Macmahon/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tesla to build titanic battery facility

Tesla announced today that it will build the world's largest lithium-ion battery system to store electricity in Australia. The 100-megawatt installation—more than three times as powerful as the biggest existing battery system—will be paired with the Hornsdale Wind Farm near Jamestown, operated by the French renewable energy company Neoen, in a deal with the state of South Australia. The Tesla battery should smooth out the variability inherent in sustainable power generation schemes.

"Cost-effective storage of electrical energy is the only problem holding us back from getting all of our power from wind and solar," says Ian Lowe, an energy policy specialist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, near Brisbane. The Tesla system, he says, will "demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale storage." It might also win over skeptics who doubt that renewables can match the dependability of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, says Geoffrey James, a renewable energy engineer at University of Technology Sydney.

Tesla may be known best for its pioneering electric cars, but it has also been extending the lithium-ion battery technology used in its cars to the storage of renewably generated electricity, with products aimed at both home and industrial applications. The agreement with South Australia is by far its biggest sale yet. (Tesla did not reveal the price tag).

The battery installation will be a key feature of the state’s aggressive move toward reliably generating half of its electricity from renewables by 2025. That drive suffered an image problem last September and again in February, when power blackouts hobbled the state. Conservative politicians were quick to blame South Australia’s shift away from fossil fuels. "It's very easy to use a blackout to attack renewable energy," James says. Investigations concluded that the failures were not due to the reliance on renewables but rather to the collapse of transmission towers in one case and unexpected power demands in another. In addition to helping match renewable energy generation and use, James says, the battery facility's "high power capacity will be available in quick bursts” to keep the electricity’s frequency in the right range in the event of grid disruptions and demand surges.

James notes that managing the use of renewables and batteries and other sustainable energy sources is a new challenge for electricity grid operators around the world. "We don't have enough experience worldwide operating grids with very high percentages of renewables," he says.

The landmark battery facility stands in contrast to the national government’s embrace of coal, and particularly the development of a massive new coal mine in central Queensland. Australia's split stance on environmental issues appeared in another announcement today: The country's carbon emissions climbed 1.4% last year, putting Australia further away from meeting its Paris Agreement commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. "It goes without saying that this is exactly the opposite direction that we need to be heading," says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council in Sydney, an organization that seeks to educate the public on climate change.